Why learning ability is the skill that trumps all other skills

Businesses need to change how they approach skills in order to recruit or develop the talent they need, writes UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel

Often companies have no idea what they mean by talent. They go out and try to get their hands on any profile that might fit the bill. But if you don’t know what talent you’re aiming for, you can’t handle it properly.

This week I saw this intriguing video of the professional Google Maps player Rainbolt on social media. He looks at a Street View image for a tenth of a second and that is enough for him to figure out where on Earth the image was taken. An incredible talent, but I don’t see any use for it except in a James Bond movie.

To understand how to identify, find and develop useful talent for the future, companies need to answer the three questions below. Any of those questions can spark a heated debate. Don’t worry, you can’t lose that debate, because there is no accepted definition of talent. The important thing is that your business has a clear understanding of their strategic needs and is able to adapt its talent management approach accordingly.

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Not every talent can be developed so it is important to think carefully about those skills that can and are strategically important, says UNSW Business School’s Frederik Anseel. Image: supplied

1. Do you mean an exclusive or an inclusive approach to talent? Inclusive means that you believe that all employees have strengths that contribute value to the company. Everyone is important and the task is to discover and nurture the strengths of all of your people and deploy them in the right way.

Perhaps your organisation is more likely to believe that a small group of people is responsible for most of the value-add. That’s the exclusive approach to talent. There is actually quite a lot of scientific support for that. In many sectors it is a select group of talent that makes or breaks an organisation. They are the Elon Musks, Christiano Ronaldos, Beyoncés and Tom Cruises of this world.

If you follow that perspective, you should do everything you can to identify, reward and retain the very best talent early. But be careful and consider the industry your working in. Most companies don’t operate in that kind of ‘winner-takes-all’ environment. Do you really need such top talent? And if you do, are you prepared for the potential side-effects? Because colleagues can hurt them closing the door behind them if you only exceptionally reward top performers.

Read more: What’s really behind the sputtering supply of talent?

2. Is talent innate or can be developed? Of course it’s both, but that is a too easy answer. We need to think more carefully about what talents can be developed and which ones are more dispositional. Some talents are simply more determined by what is innate than others. You may have read that 10,000 hours of practice can make anyone an expert. I’m sorry to disappoint, but that’s wrong. The most recent research estimates suggest that intensive and long deliberate practice determines about 21 percent of success in music, 18 percent in sports, 4 percent in academic education and less than 1 percent for some professions.

Not every talent can be developed. So you need to think carefully about those skills that can and are strategically important to you. If your organisation needs talent that requires few innate skills, don’t be picky. Recruit broadly and develop your own talents.

3. Is talent about the person or about specific skills? If the person is important, then you look for a talented person and create a job around that. Most companies, on the other hand, start with a job description and then look for specific skills for that position. But specific skills are extremely difficult to identify.

Our judgement is fooled by our general judgment of a person. That leads us too often to choose the predictable, average candidate – we prefer someone who scores well across the board over someone with one exceptional skill, but who may have a few downsides. Be less risk averse when recruiting talent. That one skill can be a hundred times more important to your business than another safe all-rounder.

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The ultimate skill is the ability to learn new skills: a combination of curiosity, an open personality and cognitive skills. Image: Shutterstock

The skill that trumps all other skills

The ultimate skill, of course, is the ability to learn new skills. The fashionable label these days is learning agility, although learning ability is probably the more straightforward term when it comes to preparing people for the future. Learning ability is a combination of curiosity, an open personality and cognitive skills.

Cognitive skills have been consistently shown to be the best predictor of success in almost all jobs. They are partly innate and partly developable through good education. That’s why early and good education matters so much in society. As an organisation you do not know what the talent is that you will need tomorrow. That means you want people with super learning abilities who pick up new skills quickly. That makes learning ability perhaps the talent for the future.

Frederik Anseel is Professor of Management and Senior Deputy Dean (Research & Enterprise) at UNSW Business School. His research focuses on the motivational micro-foundations of how people contribute to organisational success. For more information, please contact Prof. Anseel directly. A version of this post was first published in De Tijd.